Patricia Nell Warren

From Fat City to Tent City

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | September 11, 2008 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Politics, Politics, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: home foreclosures, LGBT homeless, LGBT homeless youth, social services

Remember when many of us kept lists of names of lovers and friends who died of AIDS? Not long ago, I sat down and made a list of people I know -- some students, mostly educated professional people -- who are now a rent check away from living in their cars, or on the street. The list turned out to comprise a shockingly high percentage of the LGBT people I know -- a scary profile of the thin financial ice we're all living on. One name is an L.A. friend who was unemployed for a year, scratching along with temp jobs and selling some bits of jewelry and silverplate from her mom. She's a hardworking and courageous soul who left no stone unturned. But now her unemployment has run out, she has nothing left to sell, and expects to be evicted in the next 30 days. "I'll be looking for some bushes to sleep under," she said.

Now and then, major media give us the latest cold figures on home foreclosures -- but they don't tell us much about the rest of the story. Some foreclosees are fortunate to camp with relatives or friends for a while, or live in their cars till the cars are repo-ed. But many go straight to the street. To see the real human face of what's happening, you have to step over the corporate media, who still believe (judging by the messages in their ads) that we're all living in Fat City. You have to go to the indie media or the BBC for honest reporting. Even YouTube coughs up some shocking coverage if you search under "homeless."


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America's chronically homeless population is hard to nose-count, for obvious reasons. But the U.S. government is doing its best to hide what is really going on. In July the Bush administration trumpeted what they alleged was a "success story" -- that the number of chronically homeless had dropped by about 30 percent. But wait a minute -- these figures were from 2005 to 2007. How about giving us figures from after the mortgage meltdown last year? I'll betcha those new stats are through the roof.

The fact is, tent cities are popping up everywhere -- under overpasses, in secluded rural areas, abandoned commercial lots, wherever. The fact is, on the community level, more organizations and coalitions have been shocked into action on the problem, from the ACLU to the Colorado and Massachusetts Coalitions for the Homeless. Now and then, even a city government steps up to the plate. In California, Ontario opened a tent city on some vacant land near the airport -- only to be overwhelmed by out-of-town homeless people and scarcity of resources.

But the fact is -- most city governments still think they can make homeless people "disappear" by criminalizing them. The fact is, the problem is still explosively bigger than any attempted solutions.

And the fact is, we have our growing percentage of lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered faces among the homeless.

Unfriendly cities send their cops to war on the tent cities-- armed with laws that make it illegal to sleep anywhere outside of a bonafide home.


iPhone users: Click to watch

They cut up tents, confiscate possessions and shopping carts, beat people up, even seize people's kids and turn them over to Children's Services. Even in New Orleans, the city government heartlessly tried to close tent cities.

My question is: WTF -- where are these people supposed to go? Federal and state government officials are actually cutting jobs and sending jobs out of the country, instead of trying to create jobs. There aren't nearly enough shelters. City governments either outlaw food distribution by concerned organizations, or make it difficult for them by demanding that they get permits and pass food inspection. When they're finally arrested for "breaking the law" somehow, homeless people wind up in already overcrowded jails. Last but not least, their opportunity to vote and have policy input can vanish with their freedom.

Even the Presidential candidates have little say about the problem so far -- though they will certainly have to deal with the Tent City problem if elected.

With the U.S. moving backwards on this front, and nowhere for hundreds of thousands of people to go legally, what is the next stage? If little is done, it will surely be ugly. One Arkansas blogger, who is not impressed with the way Katrina homeless were treated by government over the long term, has this suggestion, which he is obviously making in a spirit of outraged irony: "Let's just cut to the chase and kill them. Form a committee to make up the rules, people with less than 500 dollars in money or assets......DEAD. Anyone not employed in the last 3 months unless they have a note from a certified doctor.....DEAD."

In the LGBT world, homelessness needs to get up on the radar screen in big flashing red letters. We have all heard about our homeless teens in big cities, and transgender people who have been chronically unemployed. But now their ranks are joined by growing numbers of LGBT adults who are former homeowners and professional people, including seniors who have fallen on hard times. It's as urgent an issue as AIDS.

With all the rampant homophobia out there, the homeless system is extra-hard on LGBT people. Especially when a gay man, or a lesbian couple with children, or a transgender person, finds that the only option for a shelter bed on a winter night is with an organization run by a right-wing church group. All the more reason why we need to ramp up our own range of homeless services. Getting off the street is a complicated process, once you've been there. The mean streets of America have a dreadful impact on people who have spent any time there -- emotionally, spiritually and physically. It takes a range of services and multiple steps if a person is going to make it all the way back.

Right now, our nationally available infrastructure is a drop in the bucket, compared to what's needed. Example: Los Angeles, where the Jeff Griffith Youth Center has 24 beds available for youth 18 to 24. This in a city where there might be 10,000 homeless LGBT young people on the streets on any given night -- teen drifters and runaways like the ones among my students when I taught in an LAUSD dropout program. A few other big cities also have small numbers of beds and services available for youth -- I've visited some of these centers while on book tour. But these too are a drop in the bucket. And these services are only for kids. What about the adult homeless? And what happens if you're gay and homeless in Oklahoma, or Idaho, where there aren't likely to be gay-friendly services within many hundreds of miles of where you live.

I'm getting tired of reading those glowing press releases that emerge grandly from LGBT press agencies now and then -- the ones that trumpet about the millions of dollars of pink money out there -- about the big corporations that value us as super-consumers. Back in the 1970s, when the gay movement really got under way, the expression "Fat City" was popular with Americans. Fat City was where many of us yearned to live after we came out. It was where some of us LGBT folks actually got to -- with the great job and the DINK lifestyle.

But those days are over. Some of those ex-consumers are sleeping in a Tent City now...or wishing to hell they could find one.


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Thanks for this post, Patricia. Nobody likes to think about homelessness. It's an issue we all would prefer to ignore.

You brought up so many good points, especially about services for homeless youth. When I was a youth counselor, this was my most difficult issue to address because of the lack of services. There were several shelters in LA and Orange Counties that would accept youth 17 and under, but as soon as a kid turned 18 he or she aged out of the system. The intake process at the KT House at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center takes 2 weeks, because clients have to test negative for TB and substance abuse. And when you have a kid who is looking for immediate housing, 2 weeks can seem like a lifetime. The worst case scenario is when a kid walks into your office at 5:00 PM on a Friday. What do you do with them for the weekend after all of the other referral services are closed?

The sad part is that there will never be enough beds, especially in our current economic climate. The City of Long Beach has a 10 year plan to eliminate homelessness that has been revised each year since the 1990's. It's a joke. In the fifth largest city in California, there is only ONE adult homeless shelter. That is so pathetic.

I'm sorry to rant, but this is obviously a topic that I feel very strongly about.

Thanks for your excellent and informative comment, Serena. It's a good rant.

It's the Stupid Economy

Most Americans still hold to the dangerous illusion that the US is still a democracy. In spite of the evidence they refuse to accept the fact they’re not the rulers, they’re the ruled.

The rulers of this country have more wealth than anyone in history, a terrifying military capability is coupled with the morals of Caesar in Gaul and exercise effective control over information distribution and opinion making.

Their breathless fans at ABC, CBS, CNN, FAUX, NBC and the editorial board of the NY Times speak about godlike qualities of these Captains of Industry and Commerce just like their predecessors did in 1929. But the mainstream media never use the term that best describes them – the ruling class. That would be an admission that money doesn’t just talk, it commands and it that it brooks no interference.

Our economy is in a steep nosedive because of their greed, and may crash and burn. In the process of squeezing the last drop of profit, they’re wrecking things again. The tent cities Patricia describes were once called Hoovervilles. The government that gets elected in November is going to get a nasty reminder of how furious people can get when they’re hungry and homeless. Obamavilles? McCain City?

The latest BLS reports show 10 consecutive months of declining wages and another big jump in unemployment. Adjusted for inflation, workers are getting 3.1 % less than a year ago. The number of workers with health insurance is steadily dropping, and at the same time poverty and homelessness are steadily gowning. About a third of all retirees are forced to work and even them many of them have to decide between paying for food, and or rent, and or medical care.

These conditions are the result of decades of union busting and the export of good jobs. Unions and unions alone created the relative prosperity or the post World War II era but without a large, adequately paid workforce the economy is tanking. That’s why “Last hired, first fired” is no longer an echo of the past, it a reality for African Americans and others. It's why immigrant/imported workers get the worst of both worlds and why millions of women with children but without spouses are entering the ranks of the poor, even if they hold down two jobs. (It was just so damn brave of the Democrats to give them $6.75 an hour. So brave.)

Clinton ran on the slogan “it’s the economy, stupid,” but what got him elected was Perot. After his election he proved that his slogan was right for business but not for workers and conusmers.

Clinton followed Greenspans “financial markets strategy,” and stock market speculators took off like vultures looking for carrion. Clinton pushed deregulation, and the vultures got their carrion in the form of predatory mortgages. They got so much of it they choked and the market tanked, throwing homeowners into the streets.

In a KC Labor article Bill Onash quotes Timothy Canova’s Dissent article, The Legacy of the Clinton Bubble, describing The Mother Of All Deregulation. Canova says

“Clinton signed into law the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, one of the most far-reaching banking reforms since the Great Depression. It swept aside parts of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that had provided significant regulatory firewalls between commercial banks, insurance companies, securities firms, and investment banks.”

This created “fictitious capital”,which when it’s relaxing with it’s feet up on the coffee table is called Enron, Bears Sterns, Feddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and Fannie Mae. The money was real enough but it got skimmed and what was left was “fictitious capital”. Clinton’s pro-business policies were disastrous, and so was his policy of gutting welfare, health care, unemployment insurance and other safety nets for working people.

Clinton is Mr. NAFTA, which is logical since NAFTA benefited his wife, Ms.Wal-Mart so much. Obama’s economic advisors are holdover of the Clinton/Gore administration and McCain’s represent the voodoo economics of Reagan and the Bush’s. Obama is a Clinton clone and McCain is a Ragan/Bush clone. Neither of them has the wooden stakes or the guts to go after the vampires bleeding us dry.

Vote Labor, Vote Socialist, Vote Communist, write in some one like Abu-Jamal Mumia for president or just stay home (except where things like Prop 8 are on the ballot).

Double-Income / No Kids doesn't cut it anymore, in some areas. Here, rents have nearly tripled over a two- to three-year span. And some of the things that enabled me to survive with nothing 20 years ago (i.e. the ability to fish out expired bread and food from the dumpster behind the local Safeway) are non-existent now, because of all the precautions that businesses, neighborhoods and the local authorities take to ensure they're not possible.

Although slightly different from tent cities, I'm finding that the single-most urgent problem with shelters is that while a few womens' shelters are starting to open up to MTFs, there are far fewer shelters (in many areas, none) open to FTMs.

Something else trans-specific, it's still angering when TSes are attacking other TSes for working in the sex trade in whatever capacity (escorting, street, porn). Whether or not it's a "bad image" of transsexuality is a question that pales compared to the realization that for some, it's the only realistic financial route out of poverty, let alone a means toward surgery (not that I recommend it). As if the worst thing that could happen is that a trans sister perpetuates a "shemale" stereotype. Grr.

BTW, I don't mean to harp on trans issues related to this or to erase other GLB perspectives, but it's what I know.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 12, 2008 12:38 AM

Patricia, thank you for outlining the problem and it is such a persistent one that pits the least powerful against the biggest obstacles. Every new homeless shelter (even in the basement of a church) comes with a constituency yelling NIMBY!

Not only are too many people one paycheck away from disaster they are one health crisis away, they are one relationship away, they are one mistake away, one car problem away from a breakup of the total fabric of life security.

It is happening in every country and continent in varying degrees and it is a male problem, a female problem, a child problem and a LGBT problem. It is aggravated domestically by families in crisis, drug use, and every domestic horror. How can we save these people?

My ideas: Paid for from the money we waste on military expenditure mandatory high school educations with accent on real world education needs. Pay the kids to stay in school and get good grades if you have to to keep them there if they cannot summon enough support from within their families to do so.

Then community service with a living wage salary followed by college or trade school opportunities.
Then assistance in placement. We have to stop homelessness before it starts rather than complain about it after it is rife.

For those who are homeless. A campus needs to be created in all population centers specializing in battered wives, another for teen drug abusers, another for employable people (GLBT or not) who through lack of an address cannot find work. Obviously properly subsidized housing vouchers would follow. In rural America the drug of ruin is Meth so we must find solutions that are flexible enough to deal with people where they are with their problems. Addicts are going to have to be separated from the people who can be helped sooner and treatment programs should not have to require divine intervention to obtain.

Presuming the cost of five Abrams tanks is fifty million it is not a question of money, but the will to declare war on our domestic problems rather than dream up foreign ones. We need to deploy our military expenditure and people to eliminate the urban and rural blight of drug use if we expect to make headway against these problems.

To this point we have been unwilling to do all we can to break this cycle tearing urban and rural America apart. There are some wonderful pilot programs underway even in Manhattan they just need expansion and funding. Homelessness is a domestic security issue.

Sophia Eudemon | September 12, 2008 4:51 AM

The biggest reason for the lack of human rights in the USA is not homophobia or transphobia. Nor is it racism, sexism or ageism. The biggest reason for bigotry is the control most people (slaves) have voluntarily given to the rich. Whether a slave is living homeless or barely getting by in a heartless low paying job they have limited rights.

So why don't the slaves work together to change things? One word - religion. Mainstream religions, by design, brainwash people into becoming slaves of the powerful. Most religious people rather than show concern for this simply look for a group less powerful than they are to oppress since they have been taught that hatred is the way to go towards salvation. For example, most members of our relatively poor Black population take great joy in oppressing LGBT people.

Until and unless we as a nation address the biggest psychiatric illness in the USA, religiousness, we will continue to lose rights and struggle to get by.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 12, 2008 8:05 AM

Sophia, I love your passion. But by saying that nothing can be done until all religion is destroyed is saying nothing can be done. It is a cop out.

I grew up in Indiana along Lake Michigan and plenty of (pick an ethnic group) loved oppressing Black people. The "groups" were not religious, particularly, but fearful that their limited education would allow them to be vulnerable to losing their low wattage job in the 1960's.

Now, about those "slaves" of yours. Did they have a high school diploma? Were they clean of drugs? I certainly do not care about organized religion, but I have never known the religious (many poor) to discriminate against those who truly wish to improve their lives. I mean never! They would wish you well in life knowing that you don't believe. AND I DON'T.

Alex, we must deal with this old problem and the causes of it (we spend 16 billion a year on dog and cat food in america). You are too young to remember all the Viet Nam vets who came home to the states to end up drinking Thunderbird on a street corner. They had been through hell and our government did not get it. It is too easy to say "you are lazy" when we should be asking "how do you hurt?"

Very quickly it will cost much less money than our current failures (including those who end up in prisons and emergency rooms) and it needs to be presented that way. This along with police sensitivity training might give us a just society again. However, the cops in the video cutting tents? They were just acting on orders, due to pressure, from the "not in my back yard" taxpaying, bigoted, citizens who are too lazy to take their noses out of pop culture and self involvement to even consider helping their fellow human. Fido and Tabby will continue to be pampered.

Did they have a high school diploma? Were they clean of drugs?

You don't have to have a drug problem or no education to end up homeless, like everyone likes to believe. It's an equal-opportunity opportunity.

And perhaps that's part of the problem, because the homeless are still a "them" which are characterized as "not like us."

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 13, 2008 2:10 AM

Sophia was laying the cause of all homelessness at the door of all religious traditions. I lay a substantial part of it at the 50% high school drop out rate that is 80% or more in many urban blighted neighborhoods like the one in which I lived in Chicago for 26 years.

Of course you do not have to be under educated to be homeless and I expressed as much in my prior comment stressing "costly" solutions that will save fortunes in the longer term. The most important fortune it will save is a fellow human's life.

Thank you Patricia as always.

Not likely to happen. Religion appeals to the most basic of all human instincts: survival. Not survival in this life, of course, but a belief that if we live by certain rules, we'll survive death itself.

Because for many, the thought that death is followed by the same Big Nothing that preceeded our births and this little tour of duty is all we get is just too frightening. Now, to me, that Big Nothing would be real peace, so I guess it all boils down to what a person thinks "heaven" is, but for most, that's unthinkable.

Consequently, religion overrides everything, and people squander this life planning for the next one. I do agree that religion is a tool of manipulation and control weilded by an elite, but I also realize that for many ir provides a fundamental (if illusory) need.

No, this is definitely something we don't want to deal with in the US. It'll cost money, and the powers that be don't want to cough up.

So we think that imprisonment is the cheap alternative.

I seriously don't see how we can get past this stupidity.

Here in Indianapolis, we recently had a bridge severely damaged by fire. Why? Several homeless people had set up camp underneath of the bridge and a fire they were using for dinner and heat got out of hand.

The city's solution? Make sure no homeless people were staying under bridges.

'Cuz that'll solve the problem.

I worked for a gay housing agency in Seattle, WA. Although it claims to be diverse, if you look at its hierarchy you see all white, highly paid (compared to what they provide in services) directors and managers, with a bit of color and oppression to reflect the client population.

The housing is pretty much for people with AIDS; however, if someone with HIV needs rent assistance, they want to count the partner's income too. Isn't that wonderful. They can't get married, but if they live together, they want exclude that person from getting assistance by counting what the partner has.

In the shelters, it's a lot worse, you rarely see gays or transgender people at all. They have to play the severely mentally ill, whether they are or not, to try and protect themselves.

AIDS and living in a Tent City can be a near lethal combination.

We beg the government for more money, jump through the hoops, and claim we are powerless and have to do what the government wants in order to maintain funding.

The system is inherently cruel, but they help perpetrate it because it doesn't affect them--yet.

David Daniels | September 12, 2008 12:29 PM

Patrica, thank you for this remarkable article...it is long overdue. I cannot express enough how much this hurts my soul. I have lived long enough to see so many changes and advancements in the gay movement but we, I dare say 'we' have made some progress in assisting out own. After all it is the gay community who ended up being the leaders in care support for our AIDS afflicted brothers and sisters. Still, we as a community need to take a more solvent approach in taking care of our youth, our aging, our sick and yes...our homeless or the ones who are one paycheck away from it.

I repeat, this hurts my soul. Thanks for writing this.